A Reed Shaken by the Wind?
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
Matthew 11 : 7 - 10
When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. his large kingdom, Israel, was divided between three of his sons and his sister. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, gave the youngest son, Herod Antipas, the territories of Galilee and Peraea. They were geographically separate but the River Jordan flowed through both. His brothers began minting their own coins using motifs associated with their territories. Archelaus ruled Judea which included Jerusalem. It was the only area that had a coastline and so many of his coins display symbols of seafaring.
later Byzantine mosaic from the north shore of the Sea of Galilee depicting reeds.
Antipas set up his own mint around 20 A.D. for his first coins. He had built himself a new centre of government at Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and will have wanted his coins to represent his position as ruler. Most coins depicted the head of the ruler but as governor of a region largely made up of Jews he had to choose a motif that wouldn't offend their religious objection to images of people, animals and buildings. So he chose a plant, the reed, which grew in abundance by the shores of the Sea and along the banks of the River Jordan. The reed became a symbol of his two territories and, instead of his own image, appeared on his first coins minted around 18 - 20 A.D.
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Antipas' first coin minted to celebrate his new city of Tiberias
showing the image of a reed in place of himself
TIBERIAS HRWD TETRA
'Tiberius' 'Herod Tetrarch'
Antipas ruled as governor of Galilee and Peraea from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. - a period of 43 years and a remarkable achievement in the treacherous world of Roman Empire politics. He was a survivor but also made many mistakes.
- he married and divorced the daughter of the King of Nabatea which caused a war he lost
- he was saved by the Roman ruler of Syria whom he had previously offended
- he married his half brother's wife, Herodias, which broke Jewish marriage law
- he built his new capitol city, Tiberius, on a Jewish graveyard making it ritually unclean
- he mixed Tiberias with Jews and gentiles creating deep, violent tensions that lasted decades
- he took care of John the Baptist then executed him
- he asked the Emperor to promote him to King but was deposed and banished
Jesus' description of Antipas as 'that fox' (Lk 13:32) indicates that his local reputation was of one whose cunning and luck helped him survive many difficulties.
One of Aesop's fables is about an oak tree growing on the bank of a river and uprooted by a storm. It fell along the reeds and asked them how it was that he, a mighty oak, should be blown over but they, slender reeds, survive. They reply that he was stubborn and fought the wind while they 'bow and yield ' to every breeze.
With his first coin and reputation as a surviving waverer Antipas may well have been thought of locally as a 'reed blowing in the wind'.
Matthew tell us that when Jesus spoke to the crowds about John the Baptist he asked them
'What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?'
What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?
Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
What did you go out to see?
A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.'
Matthew 11 : 7 - 9
Jesus was referring to Herod Antipas. Antipas was the 'reed shaken by the wind ' who 'dressed in soft robes ' and lived in 'royal palaces '. John the Baptist, in contrast, wore camel skins, lived in the wilderness and was 'more than a prophet '. Far from being a 'reed blowing in the wind ' John was a messenger sent by God. He came to Proclaim that one 'greater than he ' would come to 'baptise with fire '.
These two verses from Matthew's gospel could only have been fully understood by locals in Galilee with knowledge of Antipas' first Tiberias coins and his reputation as a political survivor like a 'reed shaken in the wind '. They show that this story about Jesus must have had its origins in Galilee during the late 20's and early 30's.
It may even be that Antipas knew about his 'nickname' - on the next Tiberias coins he minted he replaced the 'wavering reed' with a branch from a sturdy palm tree!
Herod Antipas coin dated 29 AD.
upright palm branch
TIBE PIAC in laurel wreath
Herod Antipas coin dated 30 AD.
upright palm branch
TIBE PIAC in laurel wreath